The poem Darlene Littlefield ’94, M ’02 recited at the 1986 Clemson University Declamation Contest remains mentally engrained to the day, while the plaque commemorating her win in the German language that year is also nearby.
Her poem was “Die Beiden” by Austrian literary artist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Littlefield continues to back the contest that celebrated 50 years of gatherings in October. She is an English teacher at Walhalla High School and chaperoned 10 students to participate this fall.
“It was a great experience to be able to share this with my students,” said Littlefield, who competed across three years. “My German students had such a fun time learning their poems and participating. It was a first-time experience for all 10 of them and most are looking forward to participating again next year. I love that the Clemson Declamation has continued this long and hope it continues for many more years.
“Many students have stated they will remember their poem forever. I can attest to that, as I still remember my mandatory selection from 37 years ago. I am thrilled to have been able to share this with them.”
Five decades of success
Three hundred sixty students from South Carolina and Georgia funneled into Daniel Hall on an October Saturday morning to recite chosen selections in their respective studies – Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, American Sign Language, Russian, Latin, Italian and German. Each participant is judged on textual accuracy, pronunciation, text interpretation and smoothness of delivery.
Su-I Chen, principal lecturer of Chinese and the director of Language Lab, became involved in the contest as a part-time lecturer in 2006. She has served as contest director since 2012. Chen praised those in the Department of Languages involved with the event for making it successful and the teachers devoted to expanding their students’ educational opportunities.
“This is amazing to me,” she said. “There are many schools participating and they begin to feel the importance of learning the language. They are so enthusiastic.”
Participating in the contest isn’t the only worthwhile experience for middle school and high school students. Some of whom are prospective Clemson University students on their very first college campus tour. The chance to visit the University is a draw in its own right, Chen added.
“They want to visit the school,” she said. “This is the one opportunity for them to see the one university they’ve been thinking about but have never visited. People are so happy to come here and see the new Daniel Hall and Humanities Hall. There’s so much improvement. They said the campus tour was amazing.”
Early University archives show “The Clemlang” department newsletter referencing the second competition, which happened on November 20, 1972, and drew out 180 students from 43 high schools in the Carolinas.
Chen said she was grateful for Professor Emeritus Harry Stewart, the first Department of Languages head who founded the contest and for the University’s ongoing support. The 2020 competition was skipped due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the event was skipped over one year decades ago.
‘In my family for generations’
A first-year University student returned to the contest from a different vantage point. Maximiliano Hernandez participated a year ago as a senior at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, with “De Vuelta a Casa” by Miguel de Unamuno being one of his poems. His mother, Zuleika Hernandez ’93, understood the benefits of working out public speaking jitters and performing poems with bona fide passion.
“She was very big on the Spanish community and very big on declamation,” he said. “Declamation has been a big deal in my family for three generations – my grandfather was big into poetry. Mainly sad and patriotic, especially after his tours in Korea.”
At this point, Hernandez pauses and recites lines from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” when noting his mother’s love of the work.
“‘Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,’” Hernandez crooned. “I’m glad they’re keeping the tradition alive.”
Hernandez served as a volunteer room supervisor this time around and thanked the students for participating in a speech during the awards ceremony.
“I think it’s a very beautiful art and a wonderful tradition they’re keeping alive,” Hernandez said.
Looking forward to next year
Chen is optimistic participation will return to a high mark of 500 students in the future. The commitment to put on another 50 years of contests is strong, she said.
Lauren Altizer, the World Languages Department leader at Whitewater High School in Georgia, said her students are ready for next year.
“Even though they have to get up and leave before dawn to participate, our students are eager to go to Clemson and we have to hold tryouts each year,” she said. “The declamation contest not only enriches their language skills but boosts their confidence in their language abilities, gives valuable public speaking experience and builds enthusiasm for other language-related activities. The contest shows that hard work and dedication pay off. Our students also enjoyed getting to enjoy breakfast foods from different cultures, touring the campus, celebrating successes during the awards ceremony and spending time together with their classmates.”
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